Despite what you may think, and what they themselves might to try to convince you, philosophers and other professional think-o-logists for thousands of years have tried to answer just a couple of basic questions.
These are often hard to recognize, certainly, being cloaked in more buzzwords than a Silicon Valley initial offering, and as hard to isolate free-hand as any number of radioactive isotopes, but honestly, the real questions are but a few.
The first is of course Who am I? – although only in the past five hundred years or so has it so explicitly selfish, directed inward in this way. More likely, the more modest (or merely more vaguely indirect) ancient philosophers queried, Who are We?, and then once having determined that “we” could passably be assumed to be of the human species (depending of course on how widely and in which directions you chose to cast that net of we, then some eventually got around to What is a Human? or to an even more intellectually divergent What Does It Mean to Be a Human?. At that point, the more esoteric then make the first leap into an almost magical absurdity, asking things like Why Are We Here? or Why Am I Here? or What is My or Our Purpose in Being? (if of course, the condition of being, specifically being human, is considered possible and to some degree achieved).
Of course, those questions are more or less satisfactorily answered, schools of philosophies founded, conquerors, dictators, and other world leaders inspired (or made dejected), courses of history irreversibly altered, cultures steered, and young minds melded or melted, either positively or negatively depending on whose side of the causal font you’re drinking from.
When I was 13 or 14, my dad become involved with an organization out of Waco, TX called the Success Motivation Institute. Its founder, Paul J. Meyer, said all kinds of things like “If you are not making the progress you feel you should be making, or that you are capable of making, it is simply because your goals are not clearly defined.” Phrases like “crystallize your thinking” and “you need a POA [Plan of Action]” became commonplace around my house. Of course, because I was an obvious underachiever not living up to my potential, I was required to listen and read along with hours of self-help instruction: Blueprint for Success, The Dynamics of Personal Leadership, and so on. My father, born in Toledo, OH, the same place where Normal Vincent Peale cut his journalistic teeth on the Toledo Blade was of course intoxicated by this stuff. He already had a library full of Dale Carnegie, Napoleon Hill, Oz Mandino and others. There was nothing that a PMA [Positive Mental Attitude] couldn’t fix. At one point, he became an SMI Distributor (and mind you, this was WAY before Tony Robbins started doing his thing). We nearly moved to Waco before I started high school to facilitate greater growth. Fortunately, my dad made a trip there in the summer of 1978, was not all that impressed with Waco, and continued onward to Phoenix to visit with his aunt Alice. After experiencing the dread, dead heat of August in Phoenix, he wisely sojourned further west to California, where he answered an advertisement from a San Diego firm who didn’t need anyone for that office, but were looking for a General Manager for their Long Beach location. And so, in the summer of 1979, we moved to Torrance, California (for that perfect balance of great schools, marine layer-induced sunny calmness, and reasonable real estate in near proximity to Long Beach).
I mention this because a key phrase in the Blueprint series was the “will to meaning”. When I later read Nietzsche I immediately recognized the idea. Meyer suggested that harnessing this “will to meaning” was all you really needed to get yourself and your life in gear – that it was the difference between a shining knight of industry standing proudly atop the sprawling corpses of the competition, and the grubby, friendless poet dying of starvation in a ghetto sublet.
What philosophers of the greater order attempt to convince you is NOT to answer the initial identifying questions of who you or we are. No, the great grey matter shysters go one further. They insist that the most important question is not who we are, but why it matters and why anyone really should give a damn (except of course to buy their books and attend their lectures).
I wonder, however. If you answer the first question (i.e., Who am I?) you’ve already assumed there is an answer to this higher question. Perhaps, as Jean-Paul Sartre suggests, existence really DOES precede essence. It’s not really a chicken and egg dilemma, where potentiality must and always precedes actuality (unless of course, some divine energy simply poofed a chicken out of midair, fully grown and ready to produce eggs). But it is a dilemma – because you can in fact spend your entire life trying to figure out who you are. They call it “finding yourself”, but it’s really more about making it up as you go along, isn’t it?